SAN FRANCISCO – “You don’t mind me applying to West Point Military Academy, Mom, do you?”
“West Point?” I thought, surprised.
But it was fall. Graduation seemed like light years away.
“Go ahead,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Let me know if you need anything,” I added on automatic pilot, not having a clue what might be needed.
My son Ohr thanked me politely and told me he wanted to do this by himself.
Some 1,000 candidates are accepted out of more than 15,000 applicants nationally, I told myself, perhaps as consolation. I backed off and watched Ohr fill out long applications, write essays, get recommendations, and train regularly. He watched me trying to deal with the idea.
Hesitating, I asked if he was sure about all this.
“Everyone should serve their country,” he said. “You did that, Mom, didn’t you?”
Growing up in Israel, I was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces when I was 18, like everybody else around me, and I served in an elite intelligence unit. My mom was a medic in the same army 30 years earlier, during the War of Independence. Thirty years before that, in Europe, her father was an officer during World War I. Others in our family have done the same, and yet … this was mandatory in countries far away. And none of them were my kid.
Ohr plodded along. He got the highly sought-after commendation letter from our congresswoman, Doris Matsui, and some time later the letter of appointment accepting him into West Point arrived. It began: “On behalf of the President of the United States …” It all started to feel more real. College admittance notices don’t quite look like this. Neither did my own flimsy handwritten IDF draft notice, sent on a 3-by-5 card.
Our family overseas told us they knew all about West Point: “‘Top Gun,’ isn’t it? Anyway, if he is already thinking army, why not come to Israel?”
They reminded me that there are great programs for lone soldiers, and I should know: The headquarters for Garin Tzabar, which supports lone soldiers during their aliyah process and IDF army service, is right next to my office at the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel Center. And what if one day Israel and the United States aren’t on the same side? Did I think about that?
Some of my friends told me to be proud. Others rolled their eyes in dismay. I shrugged, with a sort of half-smile. We had things to do, like book our tickets for R Day — that’s Army shorthand for Reception Day. And go to Travis Air Force Base to get some gear, like “low quarters” (Army for “shiny Shabbes shoes”) and heavy boots he should break in before basic training. He tried them on in the store — all this for the cute little toes I tickled when my baby nursed not that long ago.
Images of my own military service came back to me as we sat there. Smells of sweaty uniforms, shoes, oily machinery, food in the mess hall. Relief at seeing the sunrise after a long night of duty. Missing one vacation after another over a heated situation at the border. Coding phone calls, dealing with a harsh commander, losing a dear friend, hitchhiking home.
I must admit, throughout the process I had moments of “What’s gotten into him?” and “Where on earth did he get that idea from?”
But then came awards night at his high school. A colonel from West Point attended especially to congratulate Ohr as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. His classmates cheered, and moms wiped away tears. One of the parents tapped my shoulder. “Great accomplishment,” he said, shaking my hand. “He tells me you’re his inspiration.”
I swallowed hard, caught off guard: all these things we teach our kids when we have no idea we’re even getting through to them, while in return they stretch who we are beyond what we ever imagined when they set out on their own journey.
In early July, we headed to the academy in upstate New York. While Ohr was called to start his “processing including receiving the first free haircut,” I walked around the grounds and remembered an earlier visit, when I dragged my mom to see this grand institution during our trip to the United States just before my own service.
I found the Jewish chapel, where the Torah in a glass display was open to Ohr’s bar mitzvah portion. I wiped salty fluids off my eyes and face. The weather started feeling just like a bad summer day in Tel Aviv. I realized, maybe this isn’t as far away as I initially thought.
JTA Wire Service
NEW YORK – As the founding executive director of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, I remember just how difficult the issue of negotiating with Germany was within the Jewish world 60 years ago.
In Israel in particular, it was a subject of enormous controversy, both political and moral. Yet as far as we in the negotiating delegation were concerned, we did not come just to seek financial help to assist the victims of the Shoah.
For the first time in the history of the Jewish people, we came forward to advance legal and moral claims on the country that had perpetrated crimes against us, in this case the successor state to the Third Reich.
For the Jewish people, persecuted and homeless for two millennia, this indeed was a unique moment in its history.
Our organization was formed in 1951 following a landmark speech by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer that signaled Germany’s readiness to address its responsibility for the acts of the Nazi regime. We chose our group’s name very deliberately. We wanted to ensure recognition that although material claims could be addressed, the moral claims of the survivors and indeed the entire Jewish people never could be resolved.
Negotiations among representatives of the Claims Conference, the State of Israel, and West Germany began in March 1952. For these talks, the Dutch government gave us an old medieval castle called the Oudkasteel at the edge of the Hague.
Two anti-Nazis headed the German delegation: Franz Bohm, a Frankfurt University professor of civil law whom American forces had freed from a Gestapo jail, and lawyer Otto Koester, who had been a leader of the Protestant resistance to the Nazis.
There were no handshakes, no banter that first day. The atmosphere was official and chilly. We somehow had the feeling that we were not alone in this room; somehow we felt that the spirits of those who could not be there were with us.
After that very solemn start, the talks engendered a proper working relationship in personal contact and discussions. The German delegation would meet mornings with the Israeli delegation and afternoons with Claims Conference representatives. The Claims Conference and Israeli representatives would meet at the end of each day and coordinate positions.
Among the three groups we created a foundation of friendly and civilized human relationships. We worked throughout the spring and summer, and you don’t spend all those months together, night and day, without developing a normal rapport and relationships.
At times we were deadlocked. Nachum Goldmann, representing the Claims Conference, would fly to Germany to meet with Adenauer, and the two would resolve the dilemma.
For six months we wrestled with trying to create the basis both for compensation and for the principle of a small measure of justice that had to be the underpinning for all the efforts. Clearly we never believed that we could attain any sort of true justice, so any sort of payments, no matter the amount, always would be symbolic in nature.
In September 1952 we signed the agreements by which West Germany promised to enact legislation that would provide individual compensation to Holocaust survivors, provide funds to the Claims Conference to help Holocaust survivors outside of Israel rebuild their lives, and provide funds to the State of Israel.
Signed in Luxembourg by Adenauer, Goldmann, and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett on behalf of Israel, the agreements laid the foundation for the ensuing 60 years of seeking a small measure of justice for Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. The agreement was for $821 million. Since then, Germany has paid $70 billion in compensation to Jewish victims of Nazism.
Adenauer and Goldmann remained in touch, periodically vacationing together in Switzerland.
From 1952 onward, the Claims Conference has worked with every German government to press its demands and to ensure that the commitment that the German government had undertaken in Luxembourg would not remain paper on the shelf of an archive.
After six decades of continuous, intense efforts to fulfill, expand, and implement the basic principles that are contained in the Luxembourg agreements, we should mark them. We don’t celebrate necessarily. We mark them, properly and appropriately.
When I look back now and think about being present at negotiations and the signing of the Luxembourg documents, I think not about writing history but about learning from experience to continue to energize our efforts going forward.
At the Claims Conference, we knew at all times that there cannot be full indemnification for the survivors’ personal suffering. We also knew there was no way that the material losses could be fully compensated. So we had to focus on the optimum that could be attained while continuing to pursue expansions. We have done this now for 60 years. But our mission and our responsibility are by no means finished.
They must continue for generations and generations to come because above and beyond our efforts to advance the demands of the survivors, there are lessons that have to be carried forward, beyond the Jewish world, in the hope that the more the world will learn what the Holocaust was all about, and how just prejudice can turn into hate and land in the crematoria of Auschwitz, the better it will be not only for the Jewish people but for the world at large.
So we must continue.
JTA Wire Service
At 8:46 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 jet flying at an approximate speed of 466 mph, slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At about that exact moment, terrorists seized control of another Boeing 767, United Airlines Flight 175. It would crash into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., at a speed of almost 600 mph.
Within two hours, both towers came down, and 2,753 people lost their lives. Among these honored dead were 343 firefighters and other emergency personnel, and 60 police officers (23 from the New York Police Department and 37 from the Port Authority).
Just before 9:38 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 would be flown into the western side of the Pentagon in Washington. At 10:03 a.m., passengers on board United Airlines Flight 93, which was aimed directly at the White House, would force it to crash into a Pennsylvania field instead. The total number of deaths that day was 2,996 people, including the 19 terrorists involved in the four hijackings.
Because of the events of that day, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom to root out and destroy the perpetrators of 9/11 and their protectors. As of this writing, 3,173 coalition deaths have occurred in that war; 2,114 of the dead were U.S. personnel.
The death toll from 9/11 and its aftermath stands at 6,169, not counting the many people who died or will die because the air they breathed on 9/11 and for many weeks after was laced with deadly matter.
At 8:46 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 11 years to the second after the first tower was hit, survivors of the victims stood in silence at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, as bells tolled for their martyred loved ones.
At 8:46 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 11 years to the second after the first tower was hit, on a White House lawn, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama led the nation in silent tribute as a bell was sounded a short distance away. Taps followed.
At 8:46 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, 11 years to the second after the first tower was hit, on CBS, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Fox News, the morning show anchors noted the time and went silent.
And at 8:46 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, on NBC’s The Today Show, host Savannah Guthrie began her interview with Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian family, who came to discuss having her breast implants removed.
We would comment, but words fail us.
Last month I traveled to Ghana with 17 American rabbis. We spent 12 days constructing the walls of a school compound, working in partnership with a local Ghanaian community ravaged by hunger, poverty, and labor exploitation.
More important than our efforts to mix cement and schlep bricks, we built powerful relationships with Ghanaian human rights activists. We also engaged in rich discussions about what it means to be faith-based leaders and global citizens.
Early-morning dogwalkers notice it first.
It gets light much later now that it did just a week or so ago. Dogs and their walkers who so recently were used to bright sunlight now are adjusting to the pale half-light of dawn. Pretty soon, they are forced to realize, they will be getting home in the navy-blue winter dark.
The summer is starting to end.
It’s still hideously hot, of course. We still walk out the door and into a thin but tough layer of sweat and grease. We’re still wearing the same summer clothes, only they’re getting a little bedraggled by now. Everything’s slow and getting slower; so many people are away that those of us left behind begin to feel abandoned. Nothing is happening. Nothing at all.
Nothing, that is, but change. Change is coming.
Children feel it as they buy their school supplies; they look forward to seeing their friends and wearing their new clothes and using their new stuff just as surely as they dread the regimentation and work that the fall always brings.
College students feel it as they prepare to leave home. Their parents feel it in the mixture of sadness and freedom that wells as they pack the campus-bound car. (Being able to shove every last bit of your child’s random found objects in and still close the door is a prime test of parenthood.)
Politicians feel it, as they gird for what already has become an ugly fight on every level and is bound to get worse.
Elul, the month when we prepare for the High Holy Days, begins on Shabbat. In Sephardi synagogues, this is the season of s’lichot, penitential prayers. Ashkenazim will hear the shofar’s cry every ordinary weekday between Sunday and N’ilah. For all of us, it is herald of an old year waning and a new one dawning, and of the self-evaluation that comes with it. It is the entry to those days of memory and loss and hope and love and turning and returning. It is a gradual but inexorable movement toward the deep emotions that we mask the rest of the year.
We live in two worlds, with two calendars and two concepts of time. How fortunate for us that both of these worlds, and even nature itself, recognize this turning.
The eruv is back. That is, yet another community has risen up in protest against the installation of an eruv that almost certainly will act as a magnet to attract those Orthodox and Conservative Jews for whom an eruv is essential. This time, the battle line is drawn in New York’s Hamptons, with the Tenafly dispute of a few years ago smack at its center. (See the article on page 12.)
The Jewish opponents of the Hamptons eruv claim that erecting a barely visible, completely unobtrusive string around their village somehow would violate their religious rights, by which they probably mean that they would prefer not having observant Jews of any stripe in their neighborhood. Besides, they say, who needs an eruv? It is nothing more than a legal fiction and that in itself is offensive to them.
Jan. 4, 2012: In Brownsville, Texas, an eighth-grader aims a firearm at classmates. The youth opens fire on police. He is shot. He will die of his wounds.
Feb. 21, 2012: In Murfreesboro, Tenn., two youths at a local high school open fire at a crowd; a 14-year-old boy is shot.
Feb. 23, 2012: In a Port Orchard, Wash., elementary school, a nine-year-old boy shoots and critically wounds an eight-year-old girl with a .45-caliber pistol.
Feb. 27, 2012: In a Chardon, Ohio, high school, a 17-year-old opens fire, killing three and wounding two.
April 2, 2012: In an Oakland, Calif., religious vocational school, a 43-year-old man opens fire on a group of students, killing seven and wounding three.
Fortunately, there were times in 2012 when the students with the guns did not kill anyone — barely.
Color me careless.
I was amused, as always, by accusations that I hate “the Orthodox” and “their” beliefs. I was furious, however, at what I saw as a deliberate misrepresentation of what I said in my column two weeks ago: that I would eat meat during the Nine Days.
KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day
Then I read the column. To my horror, I did say that. The last paragraph read:
“I shaved this week. I will shave during the Three Weeks. I will take showers during the Nine Days and I will do the laundry. I will not avoid meat when Tammuz turns to Av. I have no interest in adding to the moral imperfections of my soul.” (Italics added.)
The “not” was misplaced. The last two sentences were meant to be one sentence, to wit: “I will avoid meat when Tammuz turns to Av, for I have no interest in adding to the moral imperfections of my soul.”
Originally, what followed was an explanation of this double standard — meat no, shaving and laundry yes.
Carelessness was responsible for the error. My original draft of a column that is supposed to fit into a 1,100-word space was well over 2,000 words long. Delicate and intense surgery is required to slice off more than half of what someone writes, yet still maintain the author’s intent. Before the process is over, the editor’s eyes and mind glaze over all sorts of textual anomalies. Editors up the line catch most of these, but they cannot catch all of them.
I regret the error, but not the column. And I strongly resent charges that I routinely disparage halachic practice. My brief is with what I call “the chumrah of the month club,” those who at every opportunity pile on wholly unnecessary and counterproductive stringencies that serve no purpose and themselves may violate Jewish law.
Look at how many people who identify as Jewish reject keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, avoiding leaven during Pesach, and so forth. They see Judaism as archaic, and at times, even silly (for example, putting a string around it turns Route 80 into a private domain and makes it okay to carry a crate of soon-to-be-eaten watermelons across it on Shabbat, but do not try to push a baby carriage outside the eruv). The Avot d’Rabi Natan warns against the dangers of putting fences around the law. It is a warning honored exclusively in the breach.
My weekly column seeks to demonstrate just how vital halachah continues to be in the 21st century. How do you get more relevant than, say, the Babylonian tractate Shabbat, which nearly 2,000 years ago argued that Torah law forbids burning fossil fuels with abandon? I want people to see the importance of living halachic lives, not abandoning them.
True, I loathe “orthodox” and “orthodoxy” (I deliberately lower-cased both words), as I wrote in a column in 2010. That is because — as I so often note here — there is no such thing as “the Orthodox” and there is no such stream as “Orthodox Judaism.”
It is absurd to pretend otherwise. Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale lives in a different religious universe than Rabbi Avi Shafran, the chief spokesperson for Agudath Israel of America. The responsa of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein often conflict with those of the late Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik. The non-chasidic Orthodox world, even the charedi end of the spectrum, is alien to a chasid, and a Satmar chasid bears little resemblance to, say, a Chabad-Lubavitch adherent.
The phrase “the Orthodox” is nothing more than an umbrella term under which is tolerated many scores of chasidic and mitnagid movements, with beliefs and practices ranging from the most liberal interpretations of law and ritual to the most conservative. Then there are the Sephardim and the Mizrachi, among whom is also found huge differences in legal interpretation and ritual. Yemenite Torah scrolls, by the way, differ in several places from the established text — the scrolls nevertheless are considered valid.
What ostensibly unifies “Orthodox” Jews is a belief that the entire Torah — written and oral — came from God. I say “ostensibly” because even this is breaking down. (See, for example, Lawrence Grossman’s online article in Jewish Ideas Daily.)
Consider the spectrum of organizations calling themselves Orthodox.
On the farthest right, there is the Agudas Harabonim. Known also as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Rabbis of the United States and Canada, this group is mitnagid (non-chasidic) in orientation, and its opinions represent the strictest forms of mitnagid religious practice.
Also on the far right are the chasidic movements. Rabbis belonging to the Agudas Harabonim have been known to reject meat slaughtered under chasidic guidelines because they consider such meat to be of questionable kashrut; so much for unity even among allies on the right. Chasidic communities, meanwhile, usually follow the dictates of a single leader — “the rebbe.” Each rebbe has his own set of opinions and precedents, and no two rebbes agree on everything. Divisions exist even within some groups. The Satmar are divided into two camps, for example, as are the Chabad-Lubavitch.
Moving along the spectrum, there is the Agudath Israel of America (which has no formal ties to the Agudas Harabonim). Here, too, is the National Council of Young Israels — once a bastion of a more liberal Orthodoxy, but whose leadership over the years moved to the right of center, religiously and politically.
At the center are the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of the United States and Canada and its clergy counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of America. The RCA is no more a monolith than the Orthodoxy it claims to represent. When Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah assumed the RCA presidency last year, it was heralded as a sea change for the organization, a start of a move back to the center.
As for the Orthodox left, there really is no serious organization yet, although there have been efforts to create one. There are, however, some important new institutions emerging from this sector, such as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
I am not anti-halachic. I do not hate “the Orthodox.” I seek to promote the intelligent acceptance of halachah among all Jews. As I have always seen it, the halachic way is the only true path to the survival of Judaism in the modern world. Unnecessary and ill-considered stringencies are roadblocks along that path. Wake up, and look at the numbers.
We may disagree, but this is a debate for the sake of heaven. It is time for my critics to stop attacking me and start addressing the issues I raise.